El Salvador seeks to block prison cell phones to beat crime crisis

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador is proposing to order telephone companies to block cell phone signals inside prisons where a state of emergency has been declared, in order to prevent gang leaders from ordering murders or extortions while incarcerated.

Salvadoran policemen walks in at the Quezaltepeque jail in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

The move is among a raft of measures the government proposed to Congress on Thursday as the small Central American state struggles to combat record-high murder rates that have made it one of the world’s most violent countries.

The government declared a state of emergency on Wednesday in the country’s seven most dangerous prisons, where the proposed measures would be introduced first if legislators give their assent in a vote likely to be held on Friday.

While cell phones and other electronic devices are currently illegal inside prisons, visitors, guards and others still manage to sneak them in for the use of inmates.

Under the state of emergency, prison authorities have been ordered to limit gang leaders’ movements inside jail, and prohibit visitors and outside communication for 15 days.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren also announced plans to deploy more troops on the streets to battle a rising wave of gang violence.

In prison inspections, authorities found cell phones with up to $20,000 in call credits, Rodil Hernandez, the director of prisons, told Reuters. He said phone operators had not helped with the problem so far.

A telephone trade group told a news conference on Thursday, however, that phone companies were willing to collaborate with any measures.

Of the 33,000 or so prisoners in the country, some 13,000 are gang members, who often conduct their criminal business unabated from behind bars.

During the first two months of the year there were an average 23.3 murders a day. That was 120 percent up on the same period last year.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria, writing by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore